Excerpt from: The New Yorker
DECEMBER 4, 2015
BY ELIZABETH KOLBERT
House Speaker Paul Ryan, and other congressional Republicans, are signalling a lack of support for the climate talks.
Don’t trust the United States: as the international climate summit in Paris grinds along, this is the message Republicans in Congress are trying to send the delegates. The logic, such as it is, of the claim is that merely by making it the House G.O.P. goes a long way toward proving its validity.
On Tuesday, at a news conference in Paris, President Barack Obama exhorted negotiators to keep in mind what is at stake at the summit. “This one trend—climate change—affects all trends,” Obama said. “This is an economic and security imperative that we have to tackle now.”
Even as he spoke, congressional Republicans were doing their best to undermine him. That same day, the House approved two resolutions aimed at blocking regulations to curb U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. The first would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing rules aimed at cutting emissions from new power plants; the second would prevent the agency from enforcing rules targeted at existing power plants. Together, these rules are known as the Clean Power Plan, and they are crucial to the Americans’ negotiating position in Paris. (The Clean Power Plan is central to the United States’ pledge, made in advance of the summit, to cut its emissions by twenty-six per cent.) The House votes, which followed Senate approval of similar resolutions back in November, were, at least according to some members, explicitly aimed at subverting the talks. Lawmakers want to “send a message to the climate conference in Paris that in America, there’s serious disagreement with the policies of this president,” Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, explained.
As a practical matter, the importance of the votes is probably minimal. Obama has already threatened to veto the resolutions if they reach his desk, and there isn’t enough support for them for an override. But the resolutions are not the only trick congressional Republicans have up their collective sleeves. President Obama has pledged three billion dollars to what’s known as the Green Climate Fund. The fund is intended to help developing countries cope with climate change and also to adopt clean-energy systems. In a just world, three billion dollars is far less than the U.S. should be contributing; Republicans are threatening to block even that contribution. Leaving the fund under-financed increases the chance that poorer countries will walk away from any proposed accord.
Meanwhile, the impossibility of getting an agreement ratified by the U.S. Senate puts yet another constraint on negotiations. While many countries are pushing for a legally binding treaty, the Obama Administration is insisting on a sort of legal chimera—partly binding, partly not—so that, if there is a pact, it won’t require Senate approval. (The Washington Post has a good rundown on this particular problem.)
That Republicans would try to undercut the Administration’s efforts to do something—anything—to reduce carbon emissions is no surprise. Willful ignorance about climate change has become a point of pride among elected officials in the G.O.P. Recently, the Associated Press asked a panel of eight scientists to assess the accuracy of Presidential candidates’ tweets on climate change using a scale of zero to a hundred. (The tweets were shown to the scientists without the candidates’ names, to guard against bias.) All nine of the Republican candidates graded got failing scores. Donald Trump, for instance, received a fifteen, while Ben Carson got a thirteen and Ted Cruz a six. “This individual understands less about science (and climate change) than the average kindergartner,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University, who served as one of the judges, wrote of Cruz’s statements. “That sort of ignorance would be dangerous in a doorman, let alone a president.”
But if the recent votes aren’t surprising, they’re still discouraging. They demonstrate, once again, the power of defeatist thinking. Congressional Republicans rail against the federal government; then, with their own antics, confirm their worst criticisms. (Who, nowadays, would make the case that Americans should have faith in Washington?) The G.O.P. says that America can’t be depended on to live up to its commitments, and, by saying so, achieves its objective, which is sowing mistrust. The best that can be hoped for during the next week in Paris is that the rest of the world ignores the U.S.’s Republican leaders. Would that we had that luxury here at home.
Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999.